The Church Community
This past Tuesday a group of about 25 church members met up at the UW Arboretum and went for a walk together to enjoy God’s beautiful creation. The hour-long walk was a joyful one as people chatted, caught up and met one another. It really did feel like a celebration of community with creation. It has been a long time since I was a part of a group that size and between the sunshine and actually being with people, there was a lot of hope as we walked along. We passed quite a few other folks walking and jogging too.
A group headed the opposite direction as us, curiously asked “So are you taking a class or just protesting something?” I was proud to respond to him, actually we are a church.
His question got me thinking though, about why we gather. And yes, to learn and to protest are definitely reasons to gather. But as a church, we gather differently.
We gather to be.
To be fully ourselves, who God created us to be, a community of believers that support and care for one another.
To be the Body of Christ.
And it isn’t the same as other gatherings. We strive to forgive and welcome and serve one another because that is who Christ teaches us to be.
And it isn’t a temporary gathering, it is a gathering across time and people. We are created for community with all the saints.
Did those disciples so long ago really understand what they were getting into? Why Jesus called them to gather? The gospel says that “Jesus began to teach them that the Son of God must suffer.” So Jesus does try to explain it to them. Warning them that following him isn’t going to be easy. I have to wonder if this is the first time Jesus uses words to try to explain… he has shown them through his actions that he has a powerful connection to God, he has healed and preached and helped those around him. But now, he begins to teach them about the suffering the Son of God must endure- he tries to prepare them for the tragedy that was coming in his death on the cross. And while we have heard this story many times before, if we stop and put ourselves in the disciples shoes for a moment, it might change how we see this part.
You see, the disciples had just answered Jesus’ question of “Who do people say that I am?”, and Peter got it right when he calls Jesus the Messiah. But who did Peter actually think the Messiah was, certainly not someone who would suffer and die on the cross. This is where the words of Jesus make more sense. Peter is trying to do that thing we human beings do when we sugar coat things, when we put a positive spin on something when really what the situation calls for is someone to simply be present, to listen, to sit in the moment and be able to say, “whoa! That is hard, that is a lot and I can’t fix it for you.” The death of Jesus on the cross cannot and should not ever be normal for us. It is shocking, scandalous and goes against our human understanding of what power is. Jesus rebukes Peter because of this. Because faith isn’t about reason or logic or ready-made human responses- it is about saying to ourselves, we can’t fix this, but God can.
It is that realization, that turning around that allows us to do what Jesus calls us to do, deny ourselves. My first instinct when I hear the phrase, “deny yourself” is to start backing away, or at least voicing my concerns… no thanks, I’d rather not. Because it calls into question not only what I have in my life, but really how I understand myself. To deny is literally to make yourself a stranger, to be estranged from. And this is what we need to hear during Lent. This is what we need to hear during this Lent. Because we are invited during this season to turn back to God. To let go of the things that are getting in the way of our relationship with God or to take on a spiritual practice to enrich our relationship with God.
Sometimes our Lenten practices start to slide into the self-improvement side of religion. The if you do this, you will be a better Christian type of faith. It isn’t bad to want to do better, it just isn’t what we are really called to do when we deny ourselves and take up our cross. To deny yourself is to admit fully and freely that it isn’t about you at all. It is to allow the Holy Spirit to use you for God’s work not your own. To deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus is an invitation into the beloved community. To get out of your own way and give of yourself for the sake of others. This is hard. And as we attempt to get back into life after 2020, this is the perfect thing to ponder. What would a community look like in which each member denied themselves? Would there be more compassion, more justice, more forgiveness?
The stories coming out of Texas this week were all about community. When their power was out, when the weather was cold and people were struggling to have their basic needs met, there was the response of the leaders of course, but more importantly there were neighbors helping neighbors. Churches delivering water, grocery stores letting people just take what they needed without paying, furniture stores with generators inviting people in from the cold to stay overnight. One story that I keep thinking about was a couple who ordered groceries to be delivered and the young woman who brought them ended up being stuck in their driveway. So they invited her in and she ended up staying for 5 days. There weren’t questions about who deserved what, just people offering what they could to help.
When Jesus says deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me, he isn’t just talking about during times of hardship. He is talking about what the cross really means. Sometimes when we hear this passage about denying ourselves and taking up our cross- we can misunderstand the message. On the surface it seems to be about how we should bear our suffering heroically, without complaining, bearing it with strength and courage. When we head down this line of thinking though, we end up focusing on ourselves, what we can bear and what we can’t bear, how strong we are and where we are lacking, how if we persevere it is out of our own strength, our own determination. But really, that isn’t what taking up the cross is about.
The cross isn’t the hard things in life we bear or the shortcomings within ourselves that we deal with. The cross is a choice to give of yourself. A sacrifice. And the recognition that loving this big and sacrificing this much might just require us to rely solely on God and not ourselves. Some might call this kind of understanding weak because we are admitting we aren’t enough on our own, but we don’t call it weak- we call it faith. One commentary said the cross is a “profound offering of self”. Not with the understanding that it is about us being better or getting more, but instead it is about the choice to sacrifice for the sake of someone else and the whole Body of Christ. That is what is profound about times like this, that is what is important when we read stories about people in Texas helping each other. They are building and nourishing community based on real sacrifice that they chose.
The question Jesus poses to the disciples and his followers at the end of this passage is truly a question we grapple with in our lives too.
What does it profit someone to gain the world and forfeit their life?
What does it matter if you have everything you want, but lose your very soul? This is a question for the saints who have gone before us in the faith.
When we think about the kind of legacy they left behind for us and when we think about the kind of legacy we want to leave behind, it becomes more clear that the choices we make today are actually part of our eternal choices. We are created for community with all the saints. A community of denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following Jesus.
Thanks be to God for the choice.